This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of December 9, 2013. To subscribe (free!), click here.
This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of December 9, 2013. To subscribe (free!), click here.
Congress and the president have passed very few bills this year, and that’s neither good nor bad.
Some reporters and commentators like to count the number of laws and call Congress “productive” if the number is high and “unproductive” if the number is low. (Here’s an example.) That’s just dumb. That’s like saying the best doctor is the one who does the most surgeries. The best doctor might keep her patients from even needing surgery at all.
Congress and the president won’t likely come up with a lot more laws, much less important ones, before the end of the year and the close of the first session of the 113th Congress. The schedule for the coming week shows that pretty clearly.
The Senate plans to debate S. 1197, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which authorizes spending of about $5,600 per family on the military. If the Senate does pass it, the House won’t pass the bill by the end of the year.
The House has a series of non-controversial bills. They tend to pass the House, then go sit in the Senate, so expect few new laws there. (We’ll list them below.)
Then there are the things that could get done, but they’re nothing that will produce cheap commentary calling Congress “productive.” Here’s a brief survey.
Congressional farm bill negotiators have been working on a deal, but they’re unlikely to finish, so instead of something like House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas’s (R-OK) H.R. 2642, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 (cost: $1,500 per family), there will probably be some kind of short extension of existing agriculture-related spending programs.
An extension of a federal ban on the manufacture, sale or ownership of firearms that can’t be detected by metal detectors may be passed in the Senate. H.R. 3626, the offering of Rep. Howard Coble (R-NC), has already passed the House. Senate Democrats want a bill that covers more ground, such as requiring all gun parts to have metal in them. Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) has the bill that would do that in the House, H.R. 3643, the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act of 2013. But the chance of the Senate passing such a bill and returning it for the House’s agreement is slim. The Senate may have no choice but to quickly pass the House’s simple 10-year extension.
Remember the December 13 deadline that Congress set itself for coming up with a budget when the shutdown ended in October? Of course you don’t. That’s part of the reason why no deal will be reached by the end of the week. The House might try to pass a new budget. (The current temporary spending bill expires January 15th. That’s when the real work has to get done—or another temporary bill.)
A thing called the “Sustainable Growth Rate” is sticking in the craw of Medicare doctors. It reduces the amount of money they get paid by Medicare, and they want to change that. The American Medical Association is campaigning for more money, pointing people like yours truly to this Web site in ads on Facebook. There’s a chance that the campaign succeeds and Congress gives more money to doctors before the end of the year, but the chance of the “doc fix” passing is slim.
The Senate might try to do something to increase sanctions on Iran. A lot of members of both parties don’t really like the deal that President Obama struck with the nation formerly known as Persia, and they’d like tougher sanctions to continue.
Things that won’t happen in the House, despite Democratic demands? Passage of the Senate’s immigration bill, the Senate’s gay rights bill, or any unemployment benefits bills. (H.R. 3546, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2013, would spend about $240 per U.S. family on support for the unemployed.)
Now here are the non-controversial bills that Congress will consider and probably pass in the coming last week of legislative work for the year.
This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of December 2, 2013. Subscribe (free!) here.
It’s hard getting good numbers about what the government spends. Part of the reason is that the government doesn’t have an official organization chart. How are you going to know where the money goes if you don’t know how you’re organized?
But there are other reasons, and they’re on display in the cost estimate for H.R. 3381, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014.
Here at WashingtonWatch.com, we primarily use reports from the Congressional Budget Office for producing our cost estimates. CBO takes the gross amount of spending authorized by a bill and estimates how much will actually be spent over time. Authorization to appropriate $601 million in a given year, for example, might result in $595 million being spent over five years. Usually, the bulk gets spent in the first year, and then a decreasing amount over the ensuing years. CBO estimates usually only go out five years, though some go ten.
There have been estimates of government spending in this area for many years, and the government has released overall estimates of spending on intelligence activities since 2007. This year information on the so-called “black budget” was leaked. The intelligence budget for fiscal year 2013 was $52.6 billion. That’s a little over $500 per U.S. family, $165 per person in the United States.
The CBO does provide estimates for the unclassified sections of the bill, such as the “Intelligence Community Management Account.” That’s spending on coordination, overseeing budgets, and managing the intelligence agencies. The bill for that is $601 million, producing $400 million in spending in fiscal 2014 and $195 million in the four years after that.
The Central Intelligence Agency Retirement and Disability System is another part of the bill that the CBO can estimate, but take a look at what they do here: “[B]ecause the authorization is the same amount as the CBO baseline, CBO does not ascribe any additional cost to that provision relative to the baseline.”
Many programs in the federal government are accounted for using the assumption that spending on them will rise—they have a “rising baseline.” So even if the number of dollars spent on the program increases from one year to the next, the CBO will report no change. It will report a cost only if a bill increases spending beyond the increase that CBO already assumed! That’s one of the wackiest parts of government accounting, and something of an insult to the millions of Americans who can’t assume a “rising baseline” in their budgets.
Because CBO told us what the increase in the baseline is, we’ve added that to our estimate of the costs for H.R. 3381. The Intelligence Community Management Account and the Central Intelligence Agency Retirement and Disability System cost about $10 per U.S. family. The other $490 in spending is classified.
This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of November 24, 2013. Subscribe (free!) here.
If you’re all about the politics, the nuclear deal with Iran and the Senate’s exercise of the “nuclear option” are both meant to distract from the Obamacare debacle. It may be true with respect to the Senate reversing its long practice of requiring the approval of 60 senators to proceed with debate on appointments and bills.
The Senate has eliminated the use of the filibuster on executive branch nominees and judicial nominees other than to the Supreme Court. Maybe that was meant to take conservatives off the Obamacare scent.
But even a president of the United States can’t time a nuclear deal with Iran to move the headlines off of his floundering health care program. The deal with Iran should be considered independent of its effect on domestic U.S. politics.
The six-month deal is meant to allow further negotiations to continue.
As reported by the Guardian, the Iranians have committed to:
• stop enriching uranium above 5% and dilute its stock of 20%-enriched uranium or convert it to oxide, which makes it harder to enrich further.
• not to increase its stockpile of low-enrichment uranium.
• freeze its enrichment capacity by not installing any more centrifuges, leaving more than half of its existing 16,000 centrifuges inoperable.
• not to fuel or to commission the heavy-water reactor it is building in Arak or build a reprocessing plant that could produce plutonium from the spent fuel.
• accept more intrusive nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, including daily visits to some facilities.
In exchange, the U.S. will release just over $4 billion in Iranian oil sales revenue that were in frozen accounts, and it will suspend restrictions on Iran’s trade in gold, petrochemicals, car parts, and plane parts. Count this a success for the United States’ sanctions efforts.
Israel doesn’t like the deal. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the deal, “What was concluded in Geneva last night is not a historic agreement, it’s a historic mistake.”
It will become more clear over time whether the Iran nuclear deal is an important success for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, or if it is indeed a historic mistake.
Congress has been keenly interested in Iran, and additional sanctions were on the near horizon when the accord with Iran was struck. Here’s a look at the bills dealing with Iran introduced in Congress this year.
This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of November 18, 2013. Subscribe (free!) here.
Here at WashingtonWatch.com, we’re constantly working to open new windows onto Washington, D.C. And this week, we open a window called: Agencies!
The agencies in the executive branch carry out the will of Congress and the president.
The bills in Congress often direct government policy by talking about agencies, by telling them what to do, and even by changing their legal charters.
If you want to know what a member of Congress or senator is interested in, another way to find out is by looking at the agencies they’re writing bills about. And if you want to know who is doing what with the policies you care about, look at who is legislating about the relevant agencies.
Think the Department of Homeland Security is too intrusive? Not intrusive enough? (Or just right?) Take a look at the Department of Homeland Security’s page. See who is introducing bills about DHS, and which committee consider those bills. You can also see what the bureaus within the DHS are.
On the agencies homepage, we list the agencies that have been visited the most this week, so you can see what other people are interested in. You can also pore over an alphabetical list of agencies, a list of the agencies affected by the most bills, and the agencies appearing in the most recent bills.
Agency information can also be found on bill pages, representatives pages, and committee pages. So you can see which agencies bills affect, what representatives are writing bills about what agencies, and what committees are considering bills about what agencies.
Nothing’s simple, so here’s some explaining about agencies: We use the word “agencies” to refer to all the organizational units of government. Sure, the Department of Health and Human Services is an agency, and so is the Social Security Administration. But we also treat the Legislative Branch and Judicial Branch as agencies.
The federal government doesn’t actually have an authoritative organization chart. (That’s shocking so let’s repeat it: there is no one federal government organization chart.) There are many different versions of who does what, and we had to use one of them (it’s here), so you’ll find some small and obscure governmental organizations that are treated as agencies, like the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation and the Marine Mammal Commission.
We also only have the top two layers of the bureaucracy: agencies and bureaus. If we had our way, we’d have two more layers, programs and projects, but that thing about there being no federal government organization chart stands in our way.
Play around with agencies! You can look up your favorites, or go look on the pages for your member of Congress or senators and see what agencies their bills would affect. Or, click on a bill one of your representatives has introduced and see what agencies it would affect.
If you have a favorite agency, look and see what members are writing bills to affect it, or what committees are considering bills that affect it.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll understand just a bit better how our government works. You’ll be that much better prepared to take control of what goes on in Washington, D.C.
Good for you! You’re doing your homework, just by visitng WashingtonWatch.com! And by looking into … agencies.
This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of November 11, 2013. Subscribe (free!) here.
Oh, you can chase the political headlines. That’s a lark. But if you want things to go differently in government, you’ve got to do your homework.
So today we share a bill with you that’s nothing like Obamacare. It’s an important bill for the two sides debating it—it has environmental consequences having to do with how fuel is stored—but it’s unlikely to ever make the evening news.
The bill is H.R. 311, the Farmers Undertake Environmental Land Stewardship Act, also known as the FUELS Act. We like clever bill names and joke about passing bills just because their names are so good. But this one is interesting because it does the opposite of what Congress so often does. It takes power back from a regulatory agency.
Here’s how things usually go: Congress wants to achieve some good outcome, such as clean air, clean water, happiness, or joy, but they can’t agree on how to do it. No problem. They pass a bill telling some executive branch agency to do it. This gives your representatives in Congress a chance to say they’ve fixed a problem or made things better.
Ironically, what happens next is that the problem turns out to actually be hard. When the executive branch agency digs in, people complain about it, and they complain to Congress.
So what do your representatives in Congress do? They go after the agency for messing things up. They get a second round of credit for fixing problems, even the second problem was their own creation! Talk about having your cake and eating it, too!
But this bill does something different. Faced with an Environmental Protection Agency regulation that a lot of people apparently don’t like, Congress is talking about going in and replacing it with its own rules.
The bill would decide that the Environmental Protection Agency must require: (1) a professional engineer to be in place on a farm that has a fuel tank with an above-ground storage capacity greater than 10,000 gallons, an aggregate above-ground storage capacity of at least 42,000 gallons, or a history that includes a spill; or (2) the owner or operator of the farm to self-certify proper fuel storage on a farm with an aggregate above-ground storage capacity greater than 10,000 gallons but less than 42,000 gallons and no history of spills. It exempts any farm with an aggregate above-ground storage capacity of 10,000 gallons or less and no history of spills, and it excludes from the aggregate storage capacity of a farm all containers on separate parcels that have a capacity less than 1,320 gallons.
What’s exciting about that is that the representatives who introduced and vote for the bill are taking responsibility for lawmaking — that happens too rarely in Washington, D.C., where passing the buck is a deeply entrenched legislative practice.
Does this bill pass? Hard to know. But it as a lot of support in the House from farm-staters, mostly Republican. Its sponsor is Rep. Eric Crawford (R-AR). You can usually discount a heavily Republican bill from passing the Senate, but the Senate is designed to give more power to low-population states, farm states.
You can be wherever you want to be on this bill. But here’s the thing that matters in this civics lesson: Democracy works better when your federal legislators write the actual laws. It works worse when legislators tell regulators to do it because that allows legislators to dance away from accountability.